Although state lawmakers are debating a bill that would require law officers to wear body cameras, the Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office is not waiting to see what happens.
Already, the department has on hand some 45 Taser police body cameras that Sheriff Jim Matthews plans to require his patrol deputies to wear after training this spring. The cameras also can pick up audio.
“A camera mounted on a patrol car captures what happens in front of the car. But if a deputy has to get out of the car, no matter what the call, whether it is to handle a drunk and disorderly person or answer someone’s question, the (body) camera goes with him,” said Matthews.
It’s an issue Matthews, 64, was thinking about five years ago, when he was first elected sheriff. At that time, however, his department was severely underfunded and he had a host of other issues to deal with.
“And I don’t think they had really quality body cameras out at that point,” Matthews said. “And we didn’t even have dash-cams in the cars.”
A year ago, Matthews said, he directed Lt. Danny Templar, 43, to study the complex issues involved in body cameras – which brands were the best, the costs, how to store data, what videos would be accessible to the public, how to secure court evidence and other matters.
A sudden plunge in gasoline prices last year created a surplus in the department budget, making it possible for Matthews to afford the cameras’ $40,000-$45,000 total cost, which includes the first year’s storage at about $11,000 a year.
Templar got to work, doing trial tests on various makes of police body cameras and becoming familiar with the experiences of the handful of other S.C. law agencies with body cameras.
One of those agencies is the Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office, which for nearly a year has had some 280 road deputies equipped with body cameras.
“They have been way more a help than a hindrance,” Spartanburg County Sheriff Chuck Wright said of the cameras. “The people who don’t want to wear the cameras are the people I’m concerned with. If you’re a cop and you have a problem in people seeing what you do, there’s a problem.”
Wright was well ahead of the now-national controversy over police conduct and resulting push for body cameras. Three months before last year’s riots in Ferguson, Mo., over a police shooting of an unarmed man, the sheriff gave his deputies the cameras and the training to go with it.
“The cameras show that 99.9 percent of the time, the officers are doing things right,” Wright said. Besides protecting officers from unfounded complaints, they get citizens to trust officers more and aid in the collection of evidence. “We want to make sure we are doing things – one right video is worth five testimonies.”
The police body cameras that Kershaw County eventually bought, on Templar’s recommendation, were Taser Axon Flexes, which cost about $600 each. The model is considered top of the line, for durability and ease of uploading and securing video that is shot daily in such a way that if the video becomes evidence, it will be defensible in court, Templar said. Taser, the company that makes electric stun guns, has long worked with law enforcement and knows their needs better than many other companies, he said.
Its camera head – about 3 inches long and just under 1 inch wide – can be attached to a headband or a person’s shirt collar. Since the headband can cause headaches over a deputy’s 12-hour shift, Kershaw officers will wear them on their collars, attached by a strong magnet. The camera is high-resolution and low-light sensitive.
The battery pack and memory box, called a camera control pack, weighs about 4.5 ounces and is 2.5 inches by 3.25 inches. The battery pack is connected to the camera by a thin wire that goes under the shirt.
There are several considerations in deciding who will and won’t wear the cameras.
School resource officers won’t wear them, since they work with juveniles, and investigators will not, since they often work with confidential sources. But road deputies and SWAT team members will.
Uniformed officers invited into peoples’ homes will ask whether they can record video, and the occupants will have the right to say no. If officers have to enter a home in an emergency situation – during a violent confrontation, for example – they don’t have to ask permission.
“We are very aware of privacy issues. Out in public we will just continue to film. There’s a lesser expectation of privacy,” Templar said.
Throughout their work shifts, officers will be turning the camera on and off – depending on when they have an encounter. Officers will have to remember to activate the control pack by pushing a button on it twice. At the end of a shift, an officer might have 15-25 snippets of video, each time- and date-stamped, depending on how many encounters with the public he or she had.
“If you can answer an iPhone, you can operate a body camera,” Templar said. Some of the more difficult techniques include making sure the camera is aimed straight ahead, and not at the ground. Officers must also keep in mind that they should narrate aloud what they are seeing, especially if they are handling just-found evidence.
Initial feedback from Kershaw deputies indicates younger, tech-savvy officers will adapt to the body cameras quickly, while some veteran deputies might give “some pushback,” Templar said.
“Eventually, you learn it’s just another tool,” Templar said.
Matthews said body cameras will be useful in many ways and function as independent witnesses.
“It’s hard to argue with body cameras,” the sheriff said. “It has two main functions – to record potential evidence, and it has been proven to exonerate officers 95 percent of the time. And it will also show if the officer has done something inappropriate. It keeps everybody honest, and frequently, it causes everybody to behave better.”
Using body cameras
Other Midlands law agencies are in various stages of dealing with body cameras:
▪ Richland County Sheriff’s Department is currently testing various systems and waiting to see what funding, if any, will be provided from state and federal sources. “Due to our agency’s size it will require $1.1 million and two dedicated personnel to do the project,” Sheriff Leon Lott said. “Then the annual recurring cost will be 500K. We put it in our budget request, but the county does not anticipate being able to fund it.”
▪ Lexington County Sheriff Jay Koon said his department is researching different brands of body cameras and monitoring ongoing discussions in the General Assembly, which include funding sources. “We have done a preliminary cost analysis and must ensure we choose the best product and storage component that will fit our needs and will be the best solution as we move forward with the implementation strategy,” Koon said.
▪ The Columbia Police Department is currently using body cameras in the city’s hospitality districts. “Several additional officers will test body cameras from various vendors during a five-week period. This will allow the department to evaluate the equipment before making a selection by midsummer,” said spokeswoman Jennifer Timmons.